“Sir Calum Sorley killed five flaming monsters saving Sir Longbow’s life,” whispered a woman in the city bathhouse in Leonor.
“I heard it was ten,” said the woman next to her. Both grey haired women were naked as the day they were born, as was everyone else.
“You’re both wrong,” said Danielle Longbow, who had heard the whole conversation while she pretended to sleep in the soothing waters. “It was twenty of them. Infernoste. Flaming skeletons born in the fire of a dragon’s fury. They heal when you cut them. The bones turn to ash and flow back through the air before your eyes. If you don’t kill them fast then they can heal faster than you can swing your sword. You have to stab them through the head with silver.
Sir Calum Sorley was a blur of metal as they came at us from all sides. I’d been surrounded when he came to my aid. I owe my life to that man. Don’t insult his memory by crediting with so few kills as ten. Thirty perhaps.” Danielle stretched. Arms the width of tree trunks with the form of rope covered in scars clicked. Turning her head to the side, it made an uncomfortable crunching sound. She sighed.
“I thought you said it was twenty?” The woman who was missing two fingers and most teeth looked at Danielle with doubt in brown eyes.
“Twenty? Thirty? Maybe more. When they die the black bones collapse. We didn’t have time to count skulls. They’re aflame from head to toe. It was chaos fighting them. They were everywhere. Fastest monsters I’ve ever fought.
See the new scars around my neck? On my wrists?” Sir Longbow didn’t take the towel from her face to look at the women. She pointed at the freshest of her scar collection. “It’s only thanks to Sir Calum I’m here to tell you at all. The Nameless Knights fought like champions, one and all. It was his poor luck and a sign of his bravery that he stood foremost in our ranks. He will be missed.”
“I didn’t mean any disrespect, Sir Longbow.” The old woman’s voice quivered as much as the rest of her.
“I know. I know. I just need the kingdom to remember that he gave his life for all of us. His son doesn’t have a father. His wife is a widow now. They deserve to be known as the family of a hero. That’s what he was. When you tell the story, don’t undersell it.”
“No, sir. I won’t.” The old woman stood in the steaming water and left.
Later that day Sir Longbow stood in front of new volunteers. Though she needed new warriors she had raised the minimum age of recruitment to eighteen.
Some had failed the elimination test previously. Others were entirely new.
“Last time Nameless Knights had to fight one day one and one off for SEVEN entire days of combat. This time, it will be NINE.” She looked at resolute faces. One man shook his head and walked away. He’d failed the seven-day test before.
“Nameless Knights will be training with you during the test. They will push you to your limit. You’re not here to best them in combat. You’re here to survive until the end. I need you to pick yourself up every time you get knocked down. My knights will give you your training weapons and armour tomorrow morning before dawn. If you have doubts now, don’t be here.”
When her trial by combat was done, Danielle had thirty-six new soldiers training to become knights. Every day she trained them harder, focusing their education on how to fight the infernoste. Lands in the north had asked for aid fighting the monsters. Towns and villages on the border of Gennadius had been abandoned.
Waves of refugees had come to Leonor looking for new lives. Some of them had joined the ranks of the Nameless Knights. She was insistent that none of them would face the undead until she was satisfied that they were ready. They had to earn their knighthoods and she had raised the bar. The death of Sir Sorley had shown her that they were not ready before. She would not make that mistake again.
Another trial a month later added another forty-three warriors to her ranks. Among them were an assassin from the Church of Red Knives and a loup garou called Badru Quacey who had turned down the chance to fight with the Nameless Knights before.
Armour Danielle had commissioned from the royal armoury was delivered for the first fifty-nine knights as the second batch were due to take their vows.
Monthly trials brought in fewer and fewer recruits but after a year, the Nameless Knights numbered two-hundred and fifty-one. Sir Longbow had turned a rabble of starved beggars and labourers into a disciplined army of unflinching knights.
The time had come to return to Gennadius. They rode horses bought from the eastern continents, beautiful creatures with longer legs and silky fur. They hated the cold but rode faster than native breeds.
When the Nameless Knights saw the walking dead for the first time in more than a year, they aimed their pistols and fired from atop their steeds. Mighty bangs made every knight wince. The herd of sixty infernoste had all fallen to lead rounds filled with silver.
Danielle’s daughter, Sir Nettle Longbow, held a smoking gun in the saddle beside her. They exchanged nods before the leader heeled her mount to take her to the front of the army.
“Well done. Remember that we’re going to see them in far greater numbers as we travel north. One volley likely won’t be enough. We’ll fire as one, retreat, reload and fire again. We’ll do that as many times as we have to in order to wipe them all out. When we’re out of shot we’ll be using our swords. Pray to the gods we have more shots than Gennadius has infernoste. I kept you all in Crann to train you for longer than the queen wanted. I needed you all to be ready. We’re not going back until we’ve visited every city, every town, every village. We’re here to wipe them all out.”
Gennadius wasn’t the black and white hellscape it had been. Green had retaken the land. Grass grew here and there. Saplings sprouted near the border. Fish swam in the rivers once more.
Wherever the infernoste went the tracks were scorched. Finding them would be easier.
Danielle planted seeds of curaduile trees when they set camp. It was a deal between the Kingdom of Crann and the curaduile that as its borders stretched, so would the territory of the curaduile. The magical trees had protected Leonor city as it was besieged by soldiers from the northern lands now overrun by undead.
Wishing the planted seeds well, the knight packed the pouch in her horse’s satchel and set off again.
Godswell didn’t look much better than the last time the Nameless Knights had been there. The city was still in ruins, the main difference being the moss that was growing on the rubble. Birds sang somewhere, a stark contrast to the eery silence which had hung over the city a year before.
The army split into groups of five.
“Show me your horns,” Danielle commanded. The leader of each held up a horn hanging from a chord around their neck. “If you see anything you turn back to this spot and start blowing the horn, understand?”
Minutes later horns were blowing in the east and the north. Hooves thundered back to the market square. Danielle had the first warriors back form a line.
“Load,” she told them. The first orange streeks of fire raced past ruined buildings nearby. “Wait for the horses to pass.” Knights chased by dozens of the dead raced past the line and circled back. “AIM.” The skeletons were moments away.
“FIRE.” The blast made Danielle’s horse rear up in shock. A cloud of smoke drifted away from the guns.
“RETREAT,” she commanded. Dozens of infernoste had fallen, many more were running right behind the falling bones. “Keep blowing your horns. Let the others know where we are.” She meant the other knights but knew more of the undead would hear the horns as well. Anything for miles would have heard the ruckus.
The horses fled back to the hill that overlooked Godswell.
“RELOAD. FORM THE LINE.” Danielle poured powder into the barrel of her pistol, then the ball wrapped in a patch of fabric and pushed them down with the ramrod. She primed the pan with finer gunpowder. Checking the trigger, she raised her arm to fire.
Her soldiers were ready for a volley.
“AIM.” She looked left and right. “FIRE.”
The bang took out every skeleton in sight.
“RELOAD.” Sparks of orange shot through the city towards them again a hundred or so. “WE’RE RETREATING AFTER THIS VOLLEY. BE READY.” The skeletons emerged from ruins and ran faster than any human legs ever could. “AIM.” The first crossed the line Danielle had designated as within range.
“FIRE.” The bang rung her ears like a bell. “RETREAT.”
A third of the endless mass had fallen. Some were limping as their magic healed them.
Seizing the reigns, Danielle turned her horse and galloped with the others, up the hill and away from Godswell City. Blowing her horn for stray knights, she let it drop and bounce around her neck.
“TURN. FORM A LINE. LOAD.” She loaded her gun, fumbling. Adrenaline wasn’t helping her steady her hands. She looked; her knights were all having the same problem.
At least three hundred skeletons were inside firing range.
“AIM AND FIRE.” Most of the knights managed to shoot. “RETREAT. FOLLOW ME.”
Danielle spurred her horse on faster than the others, standing in the stirrups. She pitied the poor horse that had to carry her in armour uphill. At the front of the line, she turned in a wide arc, heading back for the city. Lost riders joined the formation from ruined forest to the east.
Giving her warriors more time to ready themselves she stopped to the east of Godswell. “FORM THE LINE. RELOAD.”
Skeletons darted downhill at the knights and for the first time there were fewer dead than living.
“AIM.” Danielle raised her pistol and pointed the barrel at the forehead of an infernoste at the forefront of the undead charge. “FIRE.”
With a bang and a puff of smoke most of the skeletons fell. A dozen remained. Sir Longbow saw no reason to waste shots they’d never get back.
“SWORDS.” The sounds of two hundred swords being drawn from their sheathes in near unison was new to Danielle. She liked it. “CHARGE!”
Horses raced towards the flaming skeletons. The lines met. Blades clanged against bone. Steeds screamed. The knights prevailed.
Breathing a heavy sigh of relief, Danielle removed her helmet. Gulping down the air she looked at her soldiers. Others were removing their helmets. She looked around. To her eyes it seemed that everyone was there.
“GROUP LEADERS TO ME.” Every knight with a horn drew into a pack in front of her. Horses neighed and snorted. “LINE UP.” She counted forty-nine of fifty.
“We’re missing five knights,” she said to herself. “BLOW YOUR HORNS. Let the stragglers know where we are.”
For an hour the horns sounded. Sir Longbow braced herself to break the news of death to five grieving families.
“Where the fuck have you been?” She asked when five knights galloped towards her from the north.
“Sorry Sir Longbow, we had a hundred of the dead chasing us. It’s taken us this long to lose them.” Sir Benigna Isa’s voice was dry and hoarse, when she had her helmet off the knight was slick with sweat. The four who had been riding with her were as bad.
“We’ll have to go and find that group who were chasing you. Catch your breath first Sir Isa.” Danielle watched the five riders drinking water then giving some to their exhausted horses.
“Aye, sir.” When she was ready, Sir Benigna put her helmet back on and checked her armour.
“NAMELESS KNIGHTS, I HOPE YOU’RE READY. WE’VE GOT MORE HUNTING TO DO.” Danielle’s throat ached from the yelling. It was a small price to pay after killing hundreds of the dead without any of her knights dying.
“AFTER ME. RIDE.”